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German Nationalism and Unification

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It is traditionally seen that Otto Von Bismarck was largely responsible for the unification of Germany and that he used a plan of war & diplomacy to fool the other European powers. But this achievement is too quickly attributed too the success of Bismarck. While Bismarck’s superb diplomatic skills were a crucial factor in the unification of Germany, he would not have achieved unification without the feeling of nationalism that had already spread throughout Germany. In fact, rather than a master diplomat, Bismarck was probably an expert opportunist, who took advantage of situations as they arose & occasionally being lucky. He reacted to others’ actions as much as he initiated events himself. Some historians are of the opinion that Bismarck’s motive was not the desire to unite Germany at all. L.C.D. Seaman wrote about on interpretation that Bismarck unified Germany, “He did not. He did not even want to.” As well as that the empire he created was not even a German empire, as Bismarck had never intended for it to be a German empire.

The progression that led to the unification of the German states began long before the arrival of Bismarck. This process started during the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon unwittingly sparked a feeling of nationalism throughout Europe. He had not only united the people of Germany and Italy. German nationalism was anti-French in origin. These feelings intensified and were nurtured, eventually spreading from the youth to the new middle class. The Crimean War reinforced these feelings and the German people looked towards Prussia as a leading power in Germany for salvation. Therefore we can see that not only Bismarck was responsible for the unification of the German states but also the people who longed for a unified Germany. These events, which were totally unrelated to Bismarck, show us that a united Germany would have been accomplished without the help of Bismarck, though the process would probably have been longer.

L.C.D. Seaman wrote that the view of Bismarck as a dynamic politician and ruthless ruler was a legend “created while the events were in progress and cast into permanent form in his Memoirs, whose chief purpose was to prove that all his predecessors were fools.” In the political arena a parallel movement to the people’s yearning for unification occurred. Prussia and Austria had been the two major powers in Germany but Prussia was the only large German state. Austria was a large empire which was not only German while the other states were too small. German people came to see German unification as the national quest of Prussia. After the revolution of 1848 parliaments, which worked for political liberalism and national unification, were established around Germany. The national parliament in Frankfurt offered the imperial crown of united Germany to Frederick William in 1849 but their proposal was rejected. Joseph Maria von Radowitz, advisor to the king, modified the ideas of unification floating around during the revolution of 1848.

The Prussian king pushed his unification plan but was forced to abandon it in 1850 when faced with an Austro-Russian threat of war. Clearly there had been a desire for a united Germany which excluded Austria before the arrival of Bismarck. Bismarck’s predecessors had not been absolute fools as he claimed in his memoirs but had contributed to the unification process by using peaceful means. Bismarck however eventually achieved this goal which could not be achieved through cooperation, through war. In the Germany of the 1860s there was widespread acceptance of Prussian-led unification. Bismarck’s empire was basically what Radowitz had proposed. Bismarck’s predecessors had mapped out Bismarck’s goal for him.

Bismarck took office in September 1862. He was a Prussian nationalist and had been an adamant opponent of German nationalism. Bismarck’s goal was preserving and extending the power of Prussia rather than unifying the Germany. He believed too that Prussia’s well being depended on wresting primacy in Germany from its traditional enemy, Austria. He is renowned for his striking phrases, such as ‘iron and blood’. L.C.D. Seaman criticized interpretation that this phrase adequately describes Bismarck’s methods, ” the sayings of Bismarck were uttered not because they were true but because they were what he wanted his hearers to believe.” But much of what he said and was very soon to do appears to have been prepared.

Bismarck utilized the international situations well. He developed good relationships with European powers to ensure their support of Prussian the unification process. He Bismarck also isolated Prussia’s enemies. Prussia’s position with regard to her major European neighbour, Russia was improved by the Polish Revolt of January 1863. Bismarck made use of the incident to guarantee the future goodwill of Russia. To Italy, Bismarck made alliance with Italy, promising to resist Austria together and help Italy to complete unification. Bismarck then outwitted Napoleon III at the meeting in Biarritz in 1865. He made vague promises about possible territorial compensation along the Rhine or in Belgium or Luxemburg. In return, Napoleon III promised not to help Austria in any future war with Prussia. Therefore, Bismarck understood what other powers needed and acted as a friend in order to gain benefit from the “friendship”.

In the Schleswig-Holstein Affair, pretended to be friendly with Austria in order to jointly acquire the two duchies. In fact, Prussia was ambitious. Bismarck accused Austria of not administering Holstein properly, entered war against her and finally expelled Austria from Germany. But L.C.D. Seaman claims that Bismarck could have engaged war against Austria after the Alvensleben Convention with Russia when the Russians suggested a Prusso-Russian war against Austria and France but backed away, proving that he was not a man of “blood and iron”. Napoleon III mediated the peace treaty between Prussia and Austria but France did not receive the territorial gains that Bismarck had promised to Napoleon III. Bismarck had outwitted France and France and Napoleon III lost prestige. This eventually led to the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.

France and Prussia clashed over the Spanish throne candidature in 1870. Bismarck supported the Hohenzollern candidature but Hohenzollern withdrew the candidature. Bismarck published a modified version of the Ems Telegram, which was sent by the King. It appeared as if the French ambassador had insulted the Prussian king. This triggered the major war in the history of German unification – the Franco-Prussian War. The success brought the German unification to the conclusion in 1871.

But did Bismarck plan in advance for such events? Bismarck’s fantastic diplomatic skill was in the handling of the circumstances which were presented to him. He reacted to the other leaders’ actions as much as he initiated the events. These events did eventually pave the way for a united Germany. Bismarck owed his success to the faults and lack of will of his opponents instead of his “master planning”.

Bismarck’s motives in unifying Germany are questionable. It is not certain whether he unified Germany because of nationalistic feelings. In fact he most probably took over the leadership of the German unification movement and manage it in such a way that Prussia emerged intact and more powerful than before. Bismarck recognized that Austrian presence in Germany would overwhelm the Prussians and therefore excluded Austria from the unified Germany. He had no intention to unify Germany, but was only concerned for Prussian affluence. He in reality was not a master planner who pursued the goal of a unified Germany.

In conclusion, the traditional view of Bismarck as the master planner and unifier of Germany is actually not accurate. Rather than a master planner Bismarck was an opportunist who took advantage of situations as they arose. Nationalism was a important part of the process of unification as well the achievements of Bismarck’s predecessors. His intention was to strengthen the power of Prussia among the German states. Bismarck achieved the goal by taking advantages in circumstances, to build up friendship with powers, to isolate his enemies and to extend Prussian power in the name of German nationalism. However, he was still a vital part of the unification.

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