Germans, Germany and Unification before Bismarck

by Dr Bruce Waller. University of Wales, Swansea

new perspective. Volume 4. Number 1. September 1998


Summary: The achievement of German unification, which excluded Austria, is too readily connected with the successes of Bismarck. Three important foundations for a Prussian dominated united Germany were in place by 1862: the wish for unity under Prussian leadership, a Prussian plan for unity under Prussian leadership and the marginalisation of Austria from economic co-operation. It is this context which contributes to a surer appreciation of Bismarck's achievement.

'Every schoolboy knows' that Otto von Bismarck created Germany; he was a great man who shifted History his way. The 'iron chancellor' himself, however, had a more modest appreciation of his role. He spoke often of piloting a raft on the current of time, deftly avoiding obstacles and steering towards an acceptable landing. In this view, he was not the master but the valet of History, addressing problems as they arose as best he could, but not commanding events. However important we think the human factor, it is people who make History, but they are constrained on all sides and their accomplishments are not necessarily in line with intentions: nevertheless, nothing noteworthy occurs without their agency. History is, largely, the record of change which was 'in the air'. In Germany conditions and, consequentially, attitudes altered: people moved with apparent ease in a new direction guided by strong personalities. Usually, these leaders follow paths of low resistance; occasionally they venture onto unexpected terrain. They are the heroes of History if we approve their deeds or aspirations; if we disapprove, we vilify them.

Assessments of Bismarck's achievements

How does Bismarck fit into this? Did he dam History's swiftly flowing waters and force them into a new channel, or did he merely steer with them and choose an appropriate landing? The achievement of German unity by a Brandenburg Junker after six centuries of familial strife and division was so clearly important and apparently so astonishing that contemporaries and historians have lavished attention on Bismarck.

So far, with one exception, all notable biographies have seen Bismarck in Olympian terms, either as an evil, or as a benign, giant. A.J.P. Taylor's biography, which was published in 1955, tried to whittle the chancellor down to size, but by arguing that he 'lived in the moment' and 'never troubled to learn the trade' of diplomacy he replaced a positive exaggeration with a negative caricature. Three years later, in 1958, Werner Mosse made a far more serious attempt to see Bismarck in perspective. The Crimean War had destroyed the Vienna settlement, based on international co-operation, and approved intervention in the interest of stability. During the post-Crimean lull no accepted international conventions existed and so each state looked after its own interests. After 1871 international politics was founded on independent nation-states, drifting towards bloc formation and rivalry not in the interest of stability but of acceptable change. Nowhere - not even in Vienna or Paris - was the prevention of German unification a high priority. In fact, the other great powers somehow sought positively to benefit from it. Mosse argues, therefore, that Bismarck's diplomatic achievement was much more modest than many have thought, although the ability to see which way events were moving and to take full and swift advantage of them is considerable.

In 1966 Helmut Böhme wrote a major work, arguing that diplomacy did not matter much since economic affairs governed the unification process, and the crucial economic decisions had been taken before Bismarck assumed high office. Böhme's economic determinism is not convincing, but he did succeed in underlining the economy, which was largely uncontrolled by Bismarck; he also emphasised the work of Bismarck's predecessors.

The European context

So, if Taylor rather awkwardly questioned Bismarck's ability, Mosse brilliantly showed that the mountain path of his diplomacy was not precipitous after all. Böhme queried the centrality of his diplomacy and pointed to the work of others. In addition, one should note that during the 'post-Crimean lull' every European great power underwent critical transformation: the British 'leap in the dark' of 1867 (the Second Reform Act) was surely the least of these momentous changes. Even the two new twen-tieth-century powers - the USA and Japan - experienced severe crisis. It would, therefore, have been odd, had Germany not been transformed in the 1860s. In a period when Italians, Romanians and Hungarians achieved a semblance of national unity and Poles strove for it, it would have been decidedly strange if Germany experienced no national transformation. One might even ask: if we wish to understand German unification, is there any point in examining the German world when Bismarck went to Berlin in 1862, to serve as Prussian Prime and Foreign Minister. Well, if we do not lose sight of the larger European factors, of course there is.

In Germany itself the ground on which Bismarck was to manoeuvre had been prepared in three crucial areas: a widespread yearning for unification had been awakened and cultivated; a political solution, close to Bismarck's own had been proposed and strongly pursued; and the economic demarcation of the future empire had been drawn. So in the mental, political and economic sphere much had been accomplished by 1862. Intelligent, well-timed and judicious action was needed. The iron chancellor provided that, but his countrymen were ready for him.

The three crucial areas are now considered more fully. Readers are invited to assess their relative importance.

Yearning for unification awakened and cultivated

Before the French Revolution Germans had never had their own state. The old empire, which collapsed in 1250, had been largely German in character but cosmopolitan in aspiration. Afterwards the memory of 'vanished supremacy' remained amongst Germans who, nevertheless, saw themselves mainly as either provincials or Catholic Europeans. As in Italy, the lack of an accepted common language complicated national identification. After the arrival of Luther, his translation of the Bible came to be accepted as 'standard German', but with him a new religious split was introduced. The simultaneous spread of what one might call 'bureaucratic German' to replace Latin was accepted all over German-speaking lands but hardened a further social split between the literate officials and the rest of the country. The spreading use of Yiddish, a largely German language, in some commercial circles, especially in the East, as a lingua franca added complexity: it spread the use of German but divided German speakers.

More than everything else put together, the crusading zeal of the French Revolution united Germans. France had invaded Germany several times before. The devastation wrought by Louis XIV was vividly remembered. But the French had never before invaded as 'Frenchmen' seeking to impose new principles.

Ironically, many Germans initially regarded the outbreak of revolution in France as a liberating force. Later, Napoleonic imperialism led to a 'German' reaction: most adopted romantic conservatism, a few remained loyal democrats. But everywhere Germans turned cultural nationalism first to increased local patriotism and then to national enthusiasm. This started in Austria with the war of 1809 but then swiftly moved to Prussia where the only really significant German reform movement occurred. Prussia took the lead in the 'war of Liberation' (1813-14) and retained it through all vicissitudes.

German nationalism was anti-French in origin. A series of crises with France and only France intensified these feelings which were nurtured, at first, largely by the young in athletic clubs and college fraternities. They then spread to the middle classes, who cultivated their national feelings in associations of all kinds - glee clubs and hunters' get-togethers, for instance. A typical German feature was the numerous cultural commemorative festivals.

The war scare of 1840 and the revolution of 1848 led to a panic and fear of a French invasion. The Crimean War and the Austro-French War of 1858-9 intensified anti-French feeling. As in 1813 German eyes focused on Prussia for salvation long before Bismarck became Prussian minister.

A political solution which excluded Austria was proposed and strongly pursued

In the political arena a parallel movement occurred, but with some delay. It did, however, foreshadow Bismarck's solution in an astonishing and almost uncanny way.

Frederick the Great first drew attention to Prussia with his unexpected attack on Austria in 1740 and marvellous feats of endurance during 23 years of intermittent warfare. There was then a short burst of Prussian-German enthusiasm in the 1770s, but this was quickly overtaken by interest in, or enthusiasm for, Joseph II of Austria once he became emperor, on his own, in 1780. So there was an eighteenth-century precedent for the attraction of Prussia as German leader against Napoleon in 1813 and 1814. Prussia was the only large 'German' state. Austria was largely un-German. The other German states were smaller. People began to see Prussia's national mission where none had existed. But she was undeniably German and Protestant; she had also reformed herself without Napoleonic help.

That the Swabian, Paul Pfizer, advocated the Prussian cause in the 1830s was a significant event. More than a dozen central and south German states had constitutions. Prussia had none, but increasingly Germans looked to her for liberation and national leadership.

The revolution of 1848 immediately brought parliaments to virtually all German states. In addition, there was a national parliament in Frankfurt which worked hard for political liberalism and national unification. For centuries Austria had been the political leader of Central Europe, but she was not sufficiently German to fit into a nation-state, although many of the delegates in Frankfurt wanted this. Their attempts to accommodate Austria in some way prolonged the deliberations for several months. But when the Frankfurt parliament offered the imperial crown to the Prussian King, Frederick William IV, in April 1849, large numbers of Germans felt that this was appropriate. Frederick William's rejection was not unexpected, although it was a great disappointment.

The really unexpected event which, perhaps, precipitated the most important turning point in nineteenth-century German history was a royal initiative. Hardly had Frederick William rejected the crown offered by the Frankfurt parliament, who he considered to be inferiors who lacked authority to make an emperor out of a king, than he tried to unite Germany under his wing apart from Austria. This entity, the Erfurt Union, would then be linked to Austria in a wider, and looser, league. This was the brainchild of his adviser, Joseph Maria von Radowitz, who had modified, in a somewhat conservative direction, one of the unification plans floated during 1848. The revolution had sought German unity under Prussia by popular election; Radowitz and Frederick William sought it through princely co-operation. In the first case royal dignity was the impediment, in the second it was princely pride. The otherwise romantic and indecisive Prussian king pushed his unification plan with enormous energy and abandoned it only in late 1850 when faced with an Austro-Russian threat of war.

Clearly, the years between 1848 and 1850 had shown that there was popular demand for a united, federal Germany with a national parliament led by Prussia and excluding Austria. There was also the wish somehow to accommodate Austria. The Prussian king and his government followed this line and devised a way of squaring Austria.

Bismarck's contribution was to achieve, through war, what patently could not be achieved through co-operation. His empire was, essentially, what Radowitz had proposed; but he tied Austria to it rather more loosely with the alliance of 1879. Therefore, before 1862, the German national movement focused on Prussia, and two peaceful attempts had been made to achieve the unfication which Bismarck was to achieve by force in the third attempt. His goal was clearly mapped out by his predecessors; peaceful methods had been exhausted. In the Germany of the 1860s there was widespread acceptance of Prussian-led unification. Large numbers of people were convinced that realism, that is force, was needed and advisable. Bismarck, at first, did not seem appealing to many nationalists, but they were looking for a man like him.

Economic demarcation of the future empire drawn

There is a widespread belief that economic affairs were central to German unification. This may, of course, be so but they were clearly not significant until after the crucial political initiative of Radowitz and Frederick William.

Prussia, especially the eastern part, suffered considerably from Napoleonic warfare. Afterwards there was a real need to address this question and to tie in the new acquisitions on either sides of the Rhine. This was done by an ambitious tax reform which liberalised the domestic economy and lowered the external tariff. The Prussians encouraged the neighbouring states to join a low-tariff league, thus gradually creating the Customs Union, which emerged on 1 January 1834. Metternich immediately perceived the possible danger to Austrian ascendancy, but before 1848 his emperors and the Prussian kings were not sure that a customs union could lead to a larger political role for Prussia. Frederick William III and IV were content to follow Austria, and so were their foreign ministers until Count Bernstorff came to power one year before he yielded the office seals to Bismarck. He and not Bismarck was the first Prussian foreign minister to stand up to Austria.

Metternich and his successors in office, up to Count Rechberg, sought to counter Prussian economic action by joining the Customs Union, dominating it and turning it into a high tariff area fortified against the outside world and with tremendous political clout. The Prussians opposed this on economic and political grounds. It cannot, of course, be proved, but it would seem illogical to assume that economic policy was not subordinate to the power struggle.

The background to the ambitious Prussian Customs Union policy was the recovery of Austria and the onset of 'neo-absolutism' after near complete defeat in 1848. 'Neo-absolutism' was no mere return to the old days and indeed backed some reform; but it was rule by a strong central bureaucracy co-operating with the police. This revitalised non-constitutional Austrian regime, existing between the constitution of 1848 and that of 1861, posed a threefold threat to Prussia. It was politically and economically extremely demanding; and it was, also, very Catholic. Prussia was on the defensive, especially in the political sphere, which was the dominant activity of the German Confederation. Prussia was also on the defensive in economic affairs: the Prussian Customs Union policy aimed at keeping what it had obtained rather than attaining more.

As the 1848 revolution crumbled, Prince Schwarzenberg rebuilt Austria and worked for an 'empire of 70 million' - a state twice the size of France - which would dominate all of Central Europe. Austrian tariff policy, the attempt to join and dominate the Customs Union, was the economic flank of this political campaign which Austria pushed vigorously after the showdown with Prussia at Olmütz in November 1850 - where Frederick William IV was forced to abandon his unification policy in humiliating circumstances. Some of the medium-sized states supported Austria in this. It was thanks to the firmness and foresight of a subordinate Prussian official, Rudolf Delbrück, that Prussia resisted Austrian plans without apparently having good prospects. But Prussia, nevertheless, had an early and decisive success when Hanover, with its allies, joined the Customs Union in 1851. This completed a solid north German bloc and enabled Prussian trade to flow easily between its eastern and western provinces; it also secured Prussia improved access to the sea. It was, in the long term, a more important victory than the apparently spectacular Austrian triumph at Olmütz 10 months earlier. In an attempt to capitalize on this, Prussia reformed the Customs Union treaties for 1854. The renewal was on her terms; Austria remained outside and merely had a 12 year trade treaty. The economic show-down was, therefore, postponed. Negotiations between Prussia and Austria began again in 1858, but by this time the principles of free trade had found many adherents in the higher bureaucracy, trade circles, agricultural and industrial producers, and - last but not least - intellectuals. Many, of course, liked the idea of protection, but Austria was not attractive as a trading partner.

Austria excluded

In a brilliant move, Prussia used the economic flank in the political struggle with Austria by moving the Customs Union westwards and further strengthening its liberal aspect. France and Britain had just concluded their famous 'Cobden Treaty' which decisively lowered tariffs. In 1860 Prussia began negotiations with France, which led to a free-trade treaty ratified a month before Bismarck assumed high office. If the treaty with Hanover had created a solid north German economic bloc, this second hammer blow for Austria linked the Customs Union with France and Britain and so created a 'trading empire' vastly superior to Schwarzenberg's dream of an 'empire of 70 million'.

In retaliation, Austria categorically demanded accession to the Customs Union in 1865 when the trade treaty of 1853 with Prussia would expire. Prussia insisted that all the members of the Customs Union must accept the French treaty and the link with that country and Britain. Austria could not compete economically while, in Austria, the government was immersed in rudderless constitutional experiments and, therefore, lost the struggle with Prussia. The Customs Union states accepted the French treaty. Austria was outmanoeuvred. The economic side of Schwarzerberg's ambitious political scheme had failed. It was blocked at two decisive points: in 1851 with Hanover's accession to the Customs Union and in 1862 (before Bismarck came to power) with the French trade treaty.

Germany's future after 1862

When Bismarck took office in September 1862 and spoke the ominous words 'iron and blood' much of what he was very soon to do was already prepared. A sense of political small German nationalism had rooted: wider Central European and narrower provincial schemes had been largely abandoned. Towards the end of the 1848 revolution Radowitz had proposed, and had gone some way to establishing, the kind of empire Bismarck was later to create; it was widely acknowledged that consensus would not work and that a tougher line was needed. Throughout the 1850s a lowly Prussian official succeeded in economically uniting what was to become the German empire. He faced numerous obstacles, including, even, some opposition from Bismarck. In 1815 an intelligent betting man would have placed his money on Austria to be the dominant power in Germany; in 1862 he would have backed Prussia.

Words and concepts to note

Familial: within a family.

Lavished: given in great quantity.

Economic determinism: the contention that economic considerations mold politics and, thereby, history.

Precipitous: steep, fast or hasty.

Lingua franca: a hybrid language used by people with different mother tongues in order to communicate.

Vicissitudes: varied fortunes.

Nurtured: assisted in growth.

Uncanny: beyond what is expected.

Clout: strength and power.

Neo-absolutism: rule by a strong central bureaucracy with police enforcement.

Questions to consider

w Why, during the Napoleonic wars, did German nationalists look to Prussia after 1813?

w Why was the trade treaty with France, 1862, so important for Prussia?

w How important were the Austrian constitutional experiments in the 1860s in the struggle for dominance in Germany?

w What arguments can be used to support the claim that the most important event in the unification of Germany was Frederick William IV's refusal of the German crown in 1849?

Further reading: W. Carr, A History of Germany, 4th edition 1991, is the best general introduction; D. Blackbourn, The Fontana History of Germany: the long nineteenth century, 1997, is especially good on social history; M. Fulbrook (ed), German History since 1800, 1997, is an excellent and very well produced survey by experts in the field; B. Waller, Bismarck, 2nd edition 1997, is an introduction to problems and interpretations; O. Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany: the period of unification, 2nd edition 1990, is the standard full biography; L. Gall, Bismarck, the white revolutionary, Vol 1, 1986, is the most searching treatment.

Germans, Germany and Unification before Bismarck by Bruce Waller. © new perspective 1998

Bruce Waller, Senior Lecturer in the University of Wales, Swansea, has written widely on Bismarck and aspects of German history. He is the author of a brief introduction to Bismarck and has recently edited a book on European history: Themes in European History, 1830-1890, 1990.

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