The process of german unification

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Bismarck had to fight three wars to unify Germany. The 1864 Danish War helped Bismarck consolidate his internal position in Prussia. The War of 1866 ousted Austria from leadership in Germany for good. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 brought the South under the aegis of the Prussian eagle. That was the unification process in a nutshell. Now let us look at it in some detail.

I. War with Denmark

Liberal sentiment in Germany had always been stirred by a desire to separate Schleswig-Holstein from Denmark. The liberals called for a repudiation of international agreements by Prussia (such as the 1852 Protocol which put the Danish issue on ice), while Bismarck declared in the Diet that he would not be a party to a breach of international obligations.

So Bismarck made an agreement with Austria, the avowed enemy of German unity, to proceed within the context of the 1852 Protocol. The two powers then sent an ultimatum to Denmark on January 16, 1864 demanding a withdrawal of the constitution of November18 (which incorporated Schleswig in Denmark) within 48 hours or face military action. Denmark, counting on the support of the European Powers, rejected the ultimatum. France hesitated to join England, which refused to act alone. So the powers did nothing. An attempt at mediation also failed. Denmark was therefore reduced to submission by Prussian and Austrian military force.

In the Treaty of Gastein (August 1865) Prussia and Austria decided how to dispose of the acquired duchies. The two powers decided to rule the two duchies jointly, with Austria administering Holstein and Prussia administering Schleswig. Prussia was given certain military roads through Holstein and command of Kiel, which was to be a port of the German Confederation. Both duchies were compelled to join the Zollverein, which was of course to Prussia's benefit since she controlled the customs union for all practical purposes.

But that was not all. Prussia also annexed Lauenburg, although she paid a price of 2.5 million thaler for it. The German claimant to the throne of the two duchies, Augustenberg, was completely ignored. All this seemed fair enough, although Prussia obviously got the better end of the stick. But Bismarck had no intention of leaving things as they were. It is surprising that the statesmen of Austria did not see this.

II. War with Austria

Bismarck believed that trouble and eventual war with Austria would be inevitable. His entire policy from 1863 to 1866 was predicated on war with Austria. He had made sure that Russia would not intervene when he sympathized with Russia in crushing the Polish revolution of 1863. Napoleon III was maneuvered into a favorable position by all kinds of vague promises for territorial aggrandizement in 1865. An alliance with Italy was made in April 1866, through Napoleon's assistance, which stipulated that Italy would come to the aid of Prussia if a war with Austria broke out in three months. Bismarck also tried to get Bavarian support but failed.

A. A bit of Caesarism

It is interesting that not a single German state was with Prussia when the war actually came. The liberal and progressive majority in the Prussian diet was somewhat mollified after the Danish war, but still actively opposed to the government. Bismarck then adopted some Caesarism from Napoleon III and Disreali. He presented a plan to the Confederate Diet in April 1866, which called for the acceptance of the 1849 electoral laws, including universal equal and secret ballot.

It was a tactical move to embarrass Austria since he knew Austria would oppose the planned reform. He really believed that universal suffrage would work to his advantage, hoping that the clergy and the landowners would be able to win the peasants to the conservative side. The growth of the worker movement would also help, since Lasalle was the chief enemy of the liberals, whose main support came from the upper bourgeoisie. In fact Bismarck and Lasalle had several important talks which increased Bismarck's confidence that his gambit would work.

Bismarck then moved towards the showdown by accusing Austria of arming and troop movements in Bohemia. He called it "seditious agitation" and further accused Austria of supporting the unlucky Augustenburg. Strangely enough, when the Prussian king put pressure on Vienna, Austria seemed willing to disarm, but false rumors that Italy was arming scared Austria and moved her in the opposite direction. So Austria mobilized first and at the same time brought the various minor problems which had developed over Schleswig-Holstein before the Federal Diet, in order to gain the support of the other German states.

Bismarck immediately cried that this was a breach of the Gastein Convention. When Austria shortly thereafter convoked the Holstein diet, Prussian troops marched into Holstein. Austria called on the armies of the Confederation to act against what it called illegal actions of Prussia in Holstein. Meanwhile Bismarck presented a new plan for the reorganization of the Confederation. This was laid on the table about the same time that Bavaria proposed to choose a commander for the Confederate armies and to mobilized the forces of the smaller states. When the Bavarian proposal won by a vote of 9 to 6, the Prussian delegate declared the Confederation dissolved and the existence of a state of war.

B. Königgratz

It was a quick war--three weeks in duration. Sadowa or Königgratz in Bohemia was the crucial battle which turned into an easy victory for Prussia, thanks to excellent organization and the famous new needle gun. The king, who had been hesitant before now wanted to invade Austria, but Bismarck, the ever-calculating diplomat, demurred. He knew the value of restraint. He was not interested in crushing Austria but in removing her from German politics.

Baden and Württemberg were treated most leniently. Bavaria was forced to sign a secret treaty to aid Prussia in any future war with France. The North German Confederation was formed by the annexation of various smaller states and the unavoidable adhesion of some larger states north of the Main river. The whole business was considered to be a revolution by most contemporary observers. What the liberals bad dreamed of for five decades, Bismarck achieved in three short weeks. Austria was permanently eliminated from German affairs.

Only some South German Catholic leaders and the socialists remained critical of Bismarck. Success had turned most of his former enemies into friends and admirers. The new Prussian diet elected on the day of the Battle of Königgratz showed a decided shift to the Right. William claimed that the victory was due to his army reforms.

C. Indemnity Bill

An Indemnity Bill passed the new diet 230 to 75, with the Poles, Catholics and Progressives voting against. This strange little maneuver legalized the budgets of 1862 to 1864, allocated 154,000,000 thalers for 1866 and confirmed the government promise to produce periodic expenditures and receipts for money spent. A further vote of confidence on the conduct of foreign affairs also passed 230 to 83. The memory of Bismarck's triumph was a powerful factor in sapping the strength and vitality of German parliamentary life for years to come.

III. War with France

But Germany was not yet fully unified. The South remained outside the fold and here is where France and Napoleon III came into the picture. Napoleon was vulnerable. He was forced to modify the traditional Richelieuan policy toward Germany because of his nationalities doctrine. But Napoleon's policy was still somewhat equivocal on German unification, as if he could not decide which was more important his belief in national self-determination or to keep France stronger than the new Germany would be.

Bismarck helped him to decide when he outmaneuvered Napoleon on the Luxembourg and Belgian issue. These disappointments plus the failure of the Mexican venture made Napoleon determined to have some kind of diplomatic triumph. French policy on the whole was jittery and erratic, reflecting Napoleon's uncertain position at home. French public opinion was not very militant. Ollivier and Gramont, the chief political leaders, preferred peace, but certain "statesmen" in France made mistakes. There were premature threats of war, there were impudent demands made on the Germans (particularly on July 12, 1870) and there was serious misinterpretation of French public opinion. Nevertheless, he who thinks war is necessary is responsible for it and Bismarck thought it was necessary to bring the South of Germany into the union.

A. Queen Isabella and Prince Leopold

Now, strange as it may seem, the Franco-Prussian War actually began in Spain. Queen Isabella was dethroned by a military coup in 1868. The Spanish parliament then began to look for candidates to replace her. Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen became one of the candidates. Bismarck was the prince's chief promoter, since he believed it would bring on the war he had failed to trigger over the Luxembourg affair of 1867. The news of Leopold's acceptance of the Spanish crown hit France like a bombshell on July 2. Gramont, the foreign minister made vague threats in the French Corp Legislatif: "We should know how to do our duty."

On July 9 the French ambassador Benedetti interviewed King William who was taking the bath at Bad Ems in Southwest Germany. The King apparently was persuaded by Benedetti to force Leopold to retract his candidacy. So on duly 12 Leopold retracts, being a good and obedient member of the Hohenzollern family. Now the matter should have rested there. But the French began to blunder and Bismarck's ingenuity fanned the embers of bad feeling into the flame of war.

Gramont was not satisfied with Benedetti's accomplishment. So Bennedetti was sent to see the king again and demand an unequivocal promise never to allow Leopold to renew his candidacy. Gramont was out for a big diplomatic triumph and so he played a game of tremendous risk, underestimating Bismarck's cleverness. Benedetti tried to see the king again, but the latter refused to grant him an audience.

B. The Ems Telegram

However, on duly 13 the king was taking a stroll through the park when Benedetti suddenly materialized from among the trees to accuse the king and make his demand for a definite promise. The king politely refused to make such a promise. A report of the affair was sent to Bismarck in Berlin by an official with the Kings's authority. When Bismarck read this famous Ems Telegram he immediately saw his opportunity.

By clever abridgement of the Ems dispatch Bismarck achieved a terse and sharply worded text which made it look like outright provocation on the part of France. He had it published in the newspapers, saying that it would have the effect of a red cloth upon the Gallic bull. That is exactly the effect it had since the French considered the doctored telegram a provocation. On duly 19 France declared war on the North German Confederation.

C. Sedan

Only Bavaria hesitated for a moment in joining Bismarck's war. Russia promised neutrality. England became neutral when Bismarck published Benedetti's plan for the annexation of Belgium which had been worked out with Bismarck's benign approval right after the Battle of KÖnigsgratz. The war did not last long. The fortress of Sedan fell on September 2, 1870 and the Emperor Napoleon walked across the German lines with his hands high in the air. Now a revolution broke out in Paris and Paris did not surrender until January 28, 1871. The Peace of Frankfurt was concluded on May 10.

France had to pay an indemnity of 5 billion francs. and East Lorraine had to be surrendered to Germany although Bismarck showed no great enthusiasm for taking them until certain industrialists pointed out their economic and hence military value. Northern France was occupied until 1873, when the indemnity was completely paid.

D. The German Empire

On January 18, 1871 William was crowned as the Emperor of Germany in the French Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The Germans know how to add insult to injury and thus lay the groundwork for future wars. Victor Hugo made a profound prophesy at this time that France would retake Alsace and Lorraine and even the Rhineland and make Germany a republic.

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